Inner State 5: Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

04/29/2015  By  Jordan Saïd     Comments Off

Inner State 5 examines American road films. This series of articles will explore their place in the rise of New Hollywood, their common themes of freedom and individualism, and their place in history as perhaps the most fundamentally American film genre. For more in this series, click here.

Two-Lane Blacktop never came close to achieving the explosive success of its inferior but more renowned cousin, Easy Rider. Even so, Two-Lane Blacktop feels like Easy Rider done right. Two-Lane Blacktop has most of Easy Rider’s hallmarks—nomadic, withdrawn hippie protagonists; a world that neither understands nor tolerates these damn hippies; a Godard-esque, minimalist script; an emphasis on silent emotionality and music to sell mood; beautiful wide shots of the open road; existentialist themes centered on the human experience—but in an actually-good movie that didn’t just fall ass-backwards into success by connecting with the right audiences at the right time on the right drugs.

Two-Lane Blacktop’s narrative starts with a race between two cars: a heavily-customized 1955 Chevy One-Fifty and a 1970 GTO that looks fresh out of the factory. James Taylor and Dennis Wilson (yes, the folksy singer and the Beach Boy) play the owners of the former, two laconic, nameless hippies who make their living as hustlers. Taylor plays the arrogant but withdrawn driver. Wilson plays the knowledgeable but aloof mechanic. Warren Oates gets the antagonist role as the GTO’s owner, a bombastic pathological liar whom the film simply calls “GTO.” Laurie Bird plays “the Girl,” a mercurial tomboy who captures the hearts of GTO and Taylor’s Driver character. The Driver and GTO bet the titles to their cars on a race from Arizona to Washington, DC.


This still also depicts my car breaking down, with me on the left and my girlfriend on the right.
That reminds me. I no longer have a girlfriend. Hey ladies, who wants my phone number?!

If you restrict your expectations to a simple race film, you’ll hate the ending and refuse this intriguing film a fair chance. The race serves as nothing more than an excuse to get these four characters interacting with each other. The film’s real conflict revolves around coping with loneliness and either breaking or accepting the cycles that their lives have become. All four characters yearn to form true, meaningful connections, yet their self-absorption, crippled by their lack of self-knowledge, precludes them from figuring out how. This becomes particularly clear with the Driver and GTO. Both try to win the Girl’s heart, but neither can give her what she wants. They don’t know how to put aside their own desires, and worse, the Girl herself has no idea what she wants. She at least seems to know she doesn’t wish to become the trophy that both the Driver and GTO view her as.

In one of my favorite scenes in any road film, the Driver struggles to connect with the Girl as James Taylor struggles to act.

The introversion of Taylor’s Driver and Wilson’s Mechanic immediately contrasts with the overbearing gregariousness of Oates’ character. Whereas the Driver thinks nothing of shit-talking other people’s cars (incidentally, you should watch this film simply because it feels so surreal to see King Laidback, James Taylor, shit-talk anyone), GTO craves social contact. The Mechanic and the Driver feel no need to discuss the past; GTO makes a past up out of whole cloth for anyone who’ll pretend to listen. The Mechanic tinkers with the Chevy constantly, while GTO lacks the attention span and the knowledge to maintain his car. The film implies that GTO lives on the open road because he desperately wants excitement, change, and new challenges. GTO has such a burning desire for competition that he’ll race a pair of professional racers despite knowing nothing about cars himself. For their part, the Driver and the Mechanic think only about racing, a thing they’ve done countless times to predictable results.

The film’s secondary conflict has to do with two competing worldviews: consumerism—in the form of the GTO—and the DIY spirit—as exemplified by the ‘55 Chevy. The ‘55 Chevy looks leaden, blocky, brutalist; the Orbit Orange GTO looks every bit the sleek muscle car. Where the GTO has a soft purr, the ‘55 Chevy has a stentorian snarl and sputter. The sound design works heavily off of these diegetic noises. The cars’ engines have more to say than the characters! In a film about the difficulty of open communication, it makes perfect sense that the characters would use these proxies to say what they can’t.

Also, something something “phallic symbol.”

Despite having the lion’s share of the acting responsibilities, Taylor, Wilson, and Bird had never acted in a movie before Two-Lane Blacktop. The gulf in acting experience between these three and Oates adds a serendipitous level of realism to the film. As Oates’ character changes personas like hats, his castmates seem flabbergasted and yet intimidated by his confidence. The emotions of the actors become the emotions of the characters. In a genre so rooted in visceral realism, the film benefits from what I can only think to describe as “bad acting done well.” Taylor, Wilson, and Bird may not have done a professional job, but they did an effective job.

Warren Oates dominates this film the way he dominates this shot.

I won’t give away too much, but the film doesn’t end with a nice, clean resolution like one would expect. The Driver and the Mechanic eventually realize they don’t particularly want the GTO, and the feeling appears mutual. In lieu of a decisive ending, Monte Hellman pulls a Jodorowsky and uses the ending to make a statement on the endless cycle of the characters’ lives, the Sisyphean struggle to make art, and even the nature of film itself. Hellman explained that the film ends this way because life doesn’t work by nice, tidy endings. The film looked like it dealt with one race, but in reality, it dealt with another: the race to understand oneself in time to connect with others before these opportunities disappear forever.

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About Jordan Saïd


Jordan Saïd does mathematics by day and writes for Front Row Central and Turban Decay by night (and weekend). He specializes in American road films, kung fu cinema, and camp (the aesthetic, not the wilderness). He lives in Eastern Washington with five cats.